As a show of thanks for the dedication and courage of the soldiers, promises were made. Many of the soldiers had purchased the promissory securities issued by the states and the Confederation Congress to help finance the war, and were looking to be paid for their show of faith. In addition, pensions were promised to officers, and bonuses to enlisted men. And many were given land bounties in government-owned properties as signup bonuses.
All well-intentioned, except that the Confederation Congress had no money, and no power of taxation to raise funds, to make good on these various promises. Pensions were not funded until 1818, 35 years after the Revolutionary War formally ended, and even then the eligibility criteria were narrowed within the dwindling pool of remaining veterans. The bonuses never materialized. And the debt securities and land bounties held by the veterans? Most veterans sold them off at a discount to financial speculators, believing that they had become worthless. Those speculators in turn colluded with Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, to have these shaky debts taken over by the new federal government and paid off at full face value. The veterans got pennies on the dollar; the speculators got dollars on the dollar at a good profit.
And so was established the pattern: after all of the speeches and parades were over, the promises made to those who sacrificed life or body in service to our country would find those promises reneged on the chopping block of “the budget.”
The pattern has continued ever since. In the boom times of 1924, Congress passed a $500 bonus to our World War I veterans, but not payable until 1945. After the Great Depression hit, in 1932 thousands of these veterans descended on Washington demanding an earlier payment to help offset their severe economic loss of property and income. They lived in make-shift shanty encampments around Washington, similar to the many “Hoovervilles” of destitute homeless people springing up around the country. When Congress refused the payments, President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to destroy the veteran camps, which he enthusiastically did – active soldiers using tanks and cavalry attacking their unarmed brother veterans. This bloody incident contributed to Hoover’s massive defeat for reelection four months later.
Franklin Roosevelt, intent on avoiding another “Bonus Army” debacle, worked with Congress in 1944 to pass the G.I. Bill for the forthcoming veterans of World War II. The bill called for major federal assistance in preferential hiring, educational grants, home mortgage assistance, and continual health care. This G.I. Bill contributed mightily to America’s 20-year post-war economic boom. They are programs that continue to this day for the new generations of veterans.
Nevertheless, veterans still have had to fight against institutional resistance to treating the effects of Agent Orange exposures and PTSD in Viet Nam. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are having to fight for assistance for more severe cases of PTSD, debilitating long-term injuries that would have meant death in previous wars, and potential diseases and contaminations that have not yet fully surfaced. But instead of needed health care, what they more commonly get is a bureaucratic runaround, a nightmare of indifference, a callous disregard for these special human beings. All in the real motivation to protect some administrator’s job and/or some politician’s personal power base.
The only thing “new” about this obscenity are the many claims from all quarters that “we didn’t know there was a problem.” Living veterans back to WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and forward, can all tell their horror stories with consistency, commonality and regularity. Stories of a lack of effective service delivery, drowning in paperwork and forms, emphasis on procedure over end result, and priority given to “the system” and the politicians who fund it instead of priority to the veterans. The scope of problems transcends time and political party and any one leader.
It is easy for one to snap to attention, whip out a snappy salute, say “thank you for your service” while patting an active soldier or veteran on the back, or make a Memorial Day speech at the local National Cemetery. It is not as easy to put substance into these token images. Many of the people spreading this rhetorical imagery are the very same people who defend (in hidden background) current Veterans Administration personnel, and vote against the funding needed to fulfill the promises made. Negative votes because the government supposedly “can’t afford it.” Such rationalization conveniently forgets that America has NEVER paid cash for any war that it has fought. Starting with our Revolution, our wars have always been funded by debt. The entire Iraq/Afghanistan wars were funded “off the books” as “special appropriations” to hide their explosive expansion of our federal budget deficit and national debt. That failure, and the massive and deliberate failure to correctly project the true cost of these wars – in dollars, time, and human casualties – led to the current over-demand on VA services. It should not have been that hard to foresee, IF the welfare of veterans was truly on the radar of the military establishment, VA administrators, and Congress.
We can, and should, yell at government officials from over the past twelve years for ignoring our commitments and for being a hurdle to needed services. But let us avoid the easy political finger-pointing that “Bush did that,” or “it’s all Obama’s fault”; that rhetoric will cause no real action to get done. Responsibility for such near-criminal conduct is spread all over Washington, to past and present occupants. Such failure is unfortunately part of our historical tradition. So let us stop the hypocrisy of patriotic grandstanding versus substantive action. Do not tell a veteran that we were fine with borrowing money to buy the planes and the tanks and the rifles, but the People who fired those rifles are not worth the same IOUs. The armaments of war make many people very wealthy. Fitting a prosthetic onto the stump of a leg does not put much cash into the bank account of either a veteran or his/her VA doctor.
We can argue all we want about lower tax rates, reduced spending, and smaller government. But the veterans who have made any government possible gave anything but a small commitment. Follow-up support for our veterans is as much a true “war cost” as was the fighter plane. We need to step up to the plate, America. It is a proper bill to be paid that is way past due.
“The Veterans Administration will be modernized … as soon as possible, but I can’t do it immediately.” (President Harry Truman, May 15, 1945)
© 2014 Randy Bell